Dune is one of those science fiction classics that was once thought could never be filmed. Like Lord of the Rings, it was too complex, too intricate an imagined world that it would take technology not yet invented to bring to the screen. But it was also too good to pass up, so in 1971, the rights were optioned by Apjac International. Nothing came of that, and in 1974, the rights passed to a French company, which had the interesting idea of casting Salvadore Dali as the Emperor, along with Mick Jagger and Gloria Swanson (the latter presumably as the Reverend Mother). Sadly, this never came to pass.
Dino de Laurentiis then snapped up the rights but once again the project languished. Ridley Scott was his first choice, but the death of Scott's brother from cancer caused the great director to lose heart in the project, so it was offered to David lynch.
Lynch, like Peter Jackson, was excited by the challenge. Somehow he created the extraordinary worlds of Dune on the screen, from the barren dessert of Arrakis (Dune itself), to the stormy world of Caladan, and the heavily industrialized Geidi Prime.
Nothing as ambitious had been tried before. It was either going to be a humungous success, or a humiliating failure. Like Jackson, Lynch picked his cast with elegant discretion. As Paul Atreides, around whom everything revolves ("He IS the Kwisatch Haderach!") young actor Kyle McLachlan was impressive; as Lady Jessica, his Bene Gesserit mother, Franscesca Anni was superb; and the choice of German actor Jurgen Prochnow as Duke Leto Atreides was inspired. Other cast members were just as well chosen - Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck, Sean Young (the current Hollywood It girl) as Chani, Richard Jordan as Duncan Idaho, and even Sting as (beautiful) Fayd - fans couldn’t have felt that the cast was anything but hand picked.
With all this, still Dune failed at the box office. Roger Ebert called it ‘a real mess”, and the worst movie of 1984; Variety admired the casting choices but damned it as “huge, hollow, imaginative and cold”; Time said it was too difficult to understand; and gay critics though it was homophobic. Only Harlan Ellison, it seemed, actually liked the movie, and even David Lynch regretted his involvement.
In hindsight, maybe you did need to have been an enthusiastic fan of the novels to really get into it, but I for one do not feel it was that hard to follow. The Dune society was highly ritualistic and involved repeated actions and phrases that perhaps those new to the story found confusing - but there was so much else to admire. The performances were brilliant, the overwhelming difficulty of bringing sand worms to the screen was handled with aplomb, and those spice affected blue eyes were stunning. There were a few bad moments, such as the end, when Paul Atreides caused the rain to fall on Dune - as Frank Herbert said, Paul was playing God, not a god who could make it rain.
Sadly this reception made it impossible to make any more movies in the series, and Dino de Laurentiis and his daughter Raphaella refused to fund Dune Messiah. In 2000 the Sci Fi Channel made a three episode mini-series starring William Hurt as Duke Leto.